The effects of signal perturbation on expression domains of molecular markers for the mesoderm and ectoderm have been analysed across the dorso-ventral axis in zebrafish embryos. Injection of RNA encoding bone morphogenetic protein-4 (BMP-4) ventralised the embryo, expanding the intermediate mesoderm and non-neural ectoderm at the expense of the dorso-anterior mesoderm and neural plate. A dose-dependent response was observed both morphologically and in expression of gta3, MyoD and pax2. Conversely, increases in dorso-anterior mesoderm and neurectoderm were generated by injection of RNA encoding either a dominant-negative BMP receptor (delta BMPR) or noggin, as demonstrated by goosecoid and pax2 expression. Ventral BMP-4 expression was also inhibited. Thus, patterning of both the mesoderm and the ectoderm during gastrulation appears to depend, directly or indirectly, on the level of BMP activity. Consistent with their locations prior to formation of the neural tube, elevated BMP-4 increased the number of dorsal spinal cord neurons whilst sonic hedgehog and islet1 expression in the ventral spinal cord were reduced. However, the ectopic neurons were not positioned more ventrally, implicating a prepattern in the dorsal neural tube that is independent of the ventral central nervous system.